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Marketing's Big Problem

A Snarketing post by Ron Shevlin, Director of Research at Cornerstone Advisors

Marketing has a problem.

The core of the problem can be traced back to one factor: We’re human. But that’s not very helpful in trying to address the problem so let’s back our way up the thread.

We humans (and thus, marketers)  have a tendency to hear what we want to hear. It’s only natural. We seek out information that supports what we already believe. We may like to think that we gather data objectively, and use that data to weigh the options and make objective decisions. But we don’t.

A few of the recent blog posts on this site help illuminate this:

1. In Do CEOs Really Need To Tweet? I highlighted some recent headlines from publications like “CEOs Who Tweet Held in High Regard” (eMarketer), “CEO Engagement on Social Media Positively Impacts Brand Image, Trust and Purchase Intent” (MarketWatch), and “Study: 74% Of Respondents More Likely To Buy From Companies With CEO Social Media Engagement” (The RealTime Report).

Each of these articles referenced a study that surveyed Fortune 1000 employees — not the general population (i.e., consumers).

But that didn’t matter to these publications. Nor, apparently, to the thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of people who tweeted the links to these articles. Why were the authors and the tweeters so eager to publish and push these conclusions? Because they fit their pre-conceived view of the world.

2. Why You Can–And Should–Measure The ROI Of Social Media highlighted a study conducted by IBM which revealed what that firm calls the Perception Gap: The differences between what executives believe consumers want from social media and what consumers themselves say they want.

Why would 61% of executives think that consumers connect to their firms on social media to “be part of a community” when only 22% of consumers say that they connect to firms on social media to be part of a community?

I can think of two reasons (there may be more): 1) The executives did market research which led them to believe that consumers connect with firms to be part of a community, or 2) They simply want to believe that consumers connect with firms to be part of a community.

The first of these reasons may be a function of the second. It’s pretty easy to construct a market research survey to generate the results you’re looking for. (If you don’t believe that, you clearly don’t read the results of political surveys).

3. In Data Is The New Sugar, I tried to argue that data was not “the new oil” as claimed by some, but that sugar was a better analogy. This prompted someone to comment: “This analogy leaves me with the feeling that data is just an extra additive to make decisions better. Shouldn’t data be of core importance? After all, data is fact, and even though it can be interpreted subjectively, is pretty much the closest thing we have to truth. ” (My emphasis)

Data is fact? Really? There’s no room for interpretation? Give five marketers the same data point, and you’re likely to get five interpretations — all influenced by what they already believe, and what they want to believe.

Tell Me Again, What’s The Problem?

Changes in technology, business, and society are causing changes in the practice of marketing. (Duh). But these changes also lead to changes in the fundamental definition of what marketing is. And there’s no shortage of people in the world of marketing with an opinion on what that new definition is.

In geeky consulting terms, this can be thought of marketing’s dominant logic. Marketing’s old, longstanding dominant logic was:

Brands build awareness and affinity with its target market through repeated, reinforcing, and consistent messaging.

There’s a lot of discussion, argument, and competition around what the new dominant logic is, or is going to be. But, at the moment, marketing has a big problem: There is no prevailing dominant logic.

With little consensus on what our function’s dominant logic is, we’re all over the map with our tactics and investments, seeing what sticks, and using whatever data, logic, and metrics we can to justify and prove that we did was successful.

Do you think that having a CEO who tweets is important? Well, here’s data that “proves” you’re right! But worse than the fact that the data doesn’t prove your point is that there is no explanation for WHY or HOW a tweeting CEO influences brand image and purchase intent. 

Do you think that using social media to help you connect to your customers will make them feel part of a community and lead to deeper relationships? Well, here’s some data to prove you’re right (or wrong)! But we’re still lacking a theory or explanation for WHY being part of a brand-led community would lead to deeper to customer relationships.

Mad Men reinforces the fact that marketing’s old dominant logic was about “repeated, reinforcing, and consistent” — and creative — messaging. But there is no dominant logic today. Marketing is rudderless. And that’s a problem.

Ron ShevlinRon Shevlin is Director of Research at Cornerstone Advisors. Get a copy of his best-selling book, Smarter Bank: Why Money Management is More Important Than Money Movement. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter at @rshevlin.

All content © 2017 by The Financial Brand and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.

Digital Banking Report | 2017 Marketing Trends


  1. Great post! I would argue we might be better off if we just stopped calling it “marketing”. Give it a completely new name just to make it clear that it is a completely new discipline. New rules, new tactics, and we need to reprove the value of different actions. We have to get past all the bad misconceptions if we want to move forward.

    Unfortunately this calls into question why all the people who go to the “top” using old tactics and thoughts still hold those positions, so they need to justify where they are and make what they did in the past still relevant today. It is all about making yourself look good, we all claim we want to make things better, but far too many people are easily distracted by adding “sugar” to make themselves look better. They aren’t actually interested in making the site better, only making people believe they are adding value.

  2. A wise friend of mine told me to read this post and substitute the word “leadership” for “marketing” throughout, and I gotta tell you–it’s spot-on with whichever word you use. I found the first couple paragraphs especially poignant. As marketers (or leaders), we (myself included) hear what we want to hear. We find ways to mold data like it’s Silly Putty to make it say what we want so desparately for it to say. (I’ve heard it called quantipulation before.)

    Great post, Ron.

  3. As someone relatively new to the world of marketing, I was relieved to read this post. I thought maybe I just wasn’t “getting” something when it felt like there wasn’t a clear direction everything to do with marketing was heading. It feels like social media marketing and “traditional” marketing should almost be separated somehow – there are totally different rules for each of them.

  4. Andrew: Thanks for your comment. I bet there are plenty of social media gurus out there who would just love to rename it something different — so that THEY can claim to be the one to coin the new term.

    Screw them. I’ll beat them to the punch. From here on out, Marketing shall be known as Customer Engineering.

    Wikipedia defines engineering as “the discipline, art, skill, profession, and technology of acquiring and applying scientific, mathematical, economic, social, and practical knowledge, in order to design and build structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes.”

    Customer Engineering fits pretty well, don’t you think?

  5. interwebn34 says:

    1. the process or technique of promoting, selling, and distributing a product or service aggregate of functions involved in moving goods from producer to consumer


    This is the definition of marketing, and it has not changed.

    Only the techniques, processes, and functions have. If they don’t promote, sell, or distribute a good/service from producer to a consumer then they are not marketing they are just something else.

    There is no dominant logic, because too much is being defined as marketing and too many as “marketers”, but that’s okay.

    There was once a time when we had no consensus on the flatness of the earth, but that did not make the fact that it is round not flat to be any less true.

  6. The Financial Marketer says:

    ^ is by there needs to be a guest comment function.

  7. I would strongly suggest you read “our magnificent bastard toungue” by John McWhorter, which describes very well the evolution and misuses of words. It describes how people hold onto old terms, that while technically correct, are not appropriate in relation to the conversations in which they are held.

    For instance, the word earth in your example, over the technical Terra (its Latin name), is an evolution meaning the exact same thing.

    The question is not if the world is flat, we all know it’s not. We are arguing two different things, and the use of the language itself is confusing it. Marketing may have a technical meaning, but the because we keep trying to force that word to mean everything, or trying to only view efforts through old lenses, we get people accomplishing nothing or exploiting the system for personal promotion. Sometimes we need new words, even if they are redundant, just to show that things are not the same and that you can’t think the same way.
    The reality is that there are many new sub disciplines, which may or may not actually roll up into a new top level discipline (I don’t really care if we call it Customer Engineering). What we need to do is force the stop of trying to justify things only as they relate to what we want to do and what we want to make us look good on the personal level.

  8. GJ Reinders says:

    I’m afraid most companies can’t reach the client the way they used to. Even social media is just reaching a specific population. Problem for Finance is that the industry isn’t very popular at the moment…..
    Besides this Finance is just a commodity for most people, they don’t give a…
    So, marketing is becoming a serious industry where multiple channels have to be used…
    And, they become aware that everyone is different and no statistic fits them all.
    Well, finally….but it’s not the problem of marketing it’s freedom of choice of the individual

  9. The Financial Marketer says:

    I wasn’t stating that words cannot develop new meanings/context over time. I was simply pointing out what the actual definition of marketing is.

    You said “sometimes we just need new words” and you are correct. As I stated if an action does not meet the definition of marketing then it is something else.

    Ron recommend that marketing now be called customer engineering, and my argument was that you don’t need to call marketing something else you just need to define what customer engineering is.

    I also again agree with the article that there is not a “dominant logic”, but that shouldn’t be a problem because what works(what’s true) will always be so regardless of what others claim or believe.

    In a nutshell, yes we may not have a general consensus on what works anymore, but who cares?

  10. For the record, my “customer engineering” suggestion was tongue-in-cheek. Andrew made a great point concerning the motivation of some people in marketing (specifically, their interest in self-promotion), and I was picking up on that thought to poke fun at the social media gurus who fall over each other to be crowned to the new “thought leader.”

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